Archive for April, 2011

When in Rome IV – Roamin’ ‘Round Rome

April 30th, 2011 No comments

April 25, 9:00-15:00

One of the best things about Rome is that there are water fountains everywhere where people can drink clean and delicious water as well as re-fill water bottles. I only had to buy one water bottle the whole time and I just kept filling it up again and again until those damned airport security people made me toss it before entering the terminal on my trip home.

One of these fountains, apparently, was in the courtyard of the building where my hostel was so you could hear the sound of running water all night long. For the most part, I actually really liked this. It sounded like rain and was very peaceful and relaxing. On the other hand there was no way I could wake up and not immediately think of how badly I needed to pee. Still, I slept surprisingly well and let myself stay in bed until 9:00, at which point I got up, shaved and showered, and headed back out into town.

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I noticed it was drizzling as soon as I stepped outside, and no sooner had I rounded the first corner than an Arab guy with a bunch of umbrellas came up to me and offered to sell me one for €5. I thought about it for a second but decided that it wasn’t raining hard enough to justify the expense. As I was walking away he reduced the price to €4 but I still didn’t take him up on it. I passed five more Arabs doing the same thing over the course of the next twenty minutes.

My plan was to walk all the way to the Pantheon, the only other thing on my must-see list besides the Vatican that I hadn’t already seen. Along the way I’d get to see Trajan’s column as well as a few other goodies. There was a pretty nice fountain at the Piazza della Repubblica which I couldn’t resist taking a quick shot of.

Nice fountain, crappy lighting.

From there I walked all the way down the Via Nazionale which is filled with shops and other things I have no interest in, but along the way the rain started to come down hard. Suddenly all those Arab guys selling umbrellas didn’t seem like such a bother. I spotted the closest one, all the way on other end of the block, and had to wait for two traffic lights before I finally got to him. Another woman was there as well and when he told her it was €5 she got all indignant, telling him it should be no more than €2. I was just about to cross the line between wet and soaked and was in no mood for this crap, so I just handed him a €5 note, took my umbrella and went my merry dry way, which I’m sure didn’t make that woman too happy.

I later passed an actual shop selling the same umbrellas for €5, so I was happy to confirm that this was not street vendor rip-off price but the price I would have paid if I’d actually bought one in a store. The street vendors must make their profits by buying in bulk.

At the end of the Via Nazionale and off to the right is Trajan’s column, something I hadn’t heard of but which Corey said I should really see. It was most definitely worth seeing—a giant column built to honor the Emperor Trajan with intricate carvings depicting great scenes from Roman history in a giant spiral going upwards. To think of all the time it must have taken to complete a work of art like that—and then to think that it’s been standing for hundreds of times as long as it took to complete. Whoever carved it out would probably be ecstatic to know just how long it would endure.

Still erect after all these centuries.  Get a load of the detail. Told you I was there. 

A bit further on from the column is the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II, which at this hour was surrounded by people because there was apparently some kind of ceremony going on. There were trumpets blowing and I heard someone say “Presidente de Repubblica” so I assumed maybe Berlusconi himself was about to emerge, but I couldn’t get a good view because everyone had their damned umbrellas open. I took a few pictures but most were dominated by umbrellas so I quickly gave up and continued my increasingly difficult search for the Pantheon.

Where's Silvio? Is he coming?

That morning I’d accidentally taken the worse of the two maps I’d been given out with me, so matching up the street names to the names on the map was a real chore. After taking it out and checking it about fifteen times to figure out how to navigate all the tiny little street-lets [I’m allowed to invent some words], I finally found it.

The building is impressive enough on the outside, but the inside is what’s truly incredible. The building itself was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa (a.k.a. Emperor Augustus’s lap-dog) and re-built by the Emperor Hadrian a few centuries later, but in the 7th century it became a Catholic Church, so you’ve got all of this Christian iconography in a building built back when Christianity was illegal.

THE Pantheon Inside THE Pantheon  

Entry was free, but the audio-guides were €5. I bought one in the hopes that I’d learn a few interesting facts, and while I did I was also reminded at just how awful these audio-guides can be. For every interesting fact they give you, they also give you seventeen boring and downright trivial facts. I’m not exaggerating when I say this audio-guide actually told you the exact dimensions of the columns in the building and described the chemical composition of the building materials. It even described the statues I was looking at—“The angel is holding a harp in its right hand and a book in its left hand”—as though I didn’t have eyes.

But without the guide I would never have known that I was looking at the tomb of Raphael, or that that floor is slightly tilted inward so that when the rain falls through the opening in the roof all the water falls into a drain in the room’s center. Because it was raining at the time, I got to see that firsthand.

 I wonder what dimensions those columns are... Here lies Rafael. Painter. Architect. Ninja Turtle.   

Those damn roofers missed a spot. Clean-up on aisle 0.  

I went through every item there which took surprisingly little time, which I was glad for because it was packed with people and I was anxious to leave. I stopped at a nearby restaurant which had a canopy you could sit under and stay outside even in the rain, and ordered a salad while reading a bit more from Rubicon. During the meal it stopped raining, and for the next few hours the cloud cover thinned out enough for the sun to bleed through and the weather felt just as good as it had the day before.

The Vatican being closed, the only other thing I had in mind for the day was to find one of those hop-on/hop-off bus tours and ride around Rome, hopping off at whatever points of interest I thought would be interesting. The only problem was actually finding a location where one of these buses would stop. I’d assumed they’d stop near the Pantheon because it’s one of the biggest attractions in Rome, but the streets around there are apparently too small.

I walked until I spotted one and then followed it in the direction it drove off to but never saw it stop. Eventually I came to the River Tiber, which I naturally had to stop and appreciate for a moment. The river is always one of my favorite parts of any city, particularly those of historical significance. It’s the lifeblood of any city, the main artery that allowed the original settlement to get started in the first place. The Tiber is also particularly awesome because countless corpses were tossed there whenever Ancient Rome underwent a violent episode.

Tevere Can't have a bridge without a statue.  

I checked my map and saw that there was a tourist information center just on the other side of the river, so I made my way in there and asked the lady at the counter where I could find a stopping point for one of the bus tours. In the most condescending tone possible, she said “Do you see that big road over there leading to the Vatican? They’re all there.”

Well, I just crossed the bridge and hadn’t noticed that road, but the map made it look like the Vatican is pretty far from here. “The closest place where they stop is the Vatican?” I asked for confirmation, and she said, “What, you don’t believe me? I wouldn’t be sitting here at the tourist information center if I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Jeez, lady, I understand that you probably get asked this a million times a day and can’t believe that people can’t figure this stuff out on their own, but you might want to consider another line of work if you can’t respond to stupid-sounding questions from tourists with at least a slight shred of politeness.

There was another tourist there and she actually came to my defense, saying “I think he believes you, he’s just not sure what to look for.” I was grateful for her help and I said, “Yeah, I see these busses all over the place but I never see them stop.” The tourist lady said, “I know what you mean. But I was just there and I definitely saw them stopped.” Three cheers for the tourist lady, a million times more helpful than the woman who actually worked there.

I very politely said goodbye to them, just confirming one more time which direction I should go and the information lady forced a smile at me as she confirmed it, obviously masking a mountain of irrational contempt she felt towards me. As I walked out the door I said the word, “bitch” under my breath, but not too quietly.

At any rate, I did find the bus tours lined up along the Via Cola di Lorenzo, the road leading to the Vatican which was actually much closer than I realized, and I found what appeared to be the best deal: €20 for two days of access to the “CitySightseeting Roma” busses. They had a red line and a blue line, the only difference between them being that the red line stopped at one or two locations the blue line didn’t and the blue line stopped at one or two locations the red line didn’t. I snapped a few shots from the bus as I waited for it to start, including one of the Vatican and one of some of the series of statues depicting the passion of the Christ, lined up along the left side of the road presumably for Good Friday.

Via Cola di Lorenzo   What Would Jesus Statues Do? 

Outside the bus - not my photo. On the bus - my photo.

I was glad to be off my feet again for awhile, and I enjoyed just being able to sit back and take in the sights from the bus as it wound its way through the streets of Rome. This was also the first true impression I got of what the traffic situation in Rome is really like. I couldn’t imagine driving in a city like this. There are cars and busses everywhere, but the real thing to watch out for are the moped-drivers who seem to have no fear at all. Our bus nearly crashed into about a dozen moped-drivers on just the first leg of my tour alone. The rest of the vehicles were also skirting catastrophe at every turn—I probably witnessed at least a hundred near-accidents throughout my cumulative time spent on the bus, but not one actual collision or even fender-bender. Perhaps having the Pope nearby protects them.

And while on the subject of traffic I should also mention that the situation for pedestrians is just as bananas. The town has traffic lights but they seem to only put them in places where it’s absolutely indisputably necessary to have one, and in some places where you’d think it should be absolutely indisputably necessary to have one there aren’t any. Lots of extremely busy, extremely wide streets have nothing but a zebra-crossing to get pedestrians across but no light at all. You just have to walk out and hope that the drivers will grant you the right-of-way. Pedestrians technically have the right-of-way in such situations but Roman drivers must be so fed up of stopping for them that a lot of them refuse to do so. My strategy was always just to wait until a few other people started crossing and then to hop on the bandwagon. The only sure-fire way to stay safe is to always follow the mob. In any case, I find it shocking that Roman hospitals aren’t packed to the brim with broken-legged tourists. Again, it must be the grace of the Pope.

Not exactly like my map, but close.

The bus tour stops for 30 minutes near Termini station, and I used that time to hop back to my hostel, take a much-needed dump, and exchange my crappy map for the somewhat-less-crappy-but-still-highly-flawed map I’d used the day before (neither of which is the map above which you get from the bus company). I still had plenty of time when I got back on the bus, but I was glad because it gave me an opportunity to do some more reading.

I was able to get a few more good Colosseum shots as we passed by, and even managed to get the guy next to me to get a shot of me in front of it which I think came out really nicely.

Next we passed by the Circus Maximus, and I tried to get some pictures while the bus was moving but the only one that came out half-way decent was a shot in which you can’t even tell what it is. I could have hopped off there to get some better pictures but honestly it didn’t look all that impressive and I didn’t want to lose the great seat I had right at the front of the bus.

Colosee me? Ben-Hur's old stomping ground. 

I did hop off when we reached the Piazza Venezia again because the two other things I wanted to do were to walk up the steps of the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II—the giant museum where that ceremony had taken place in the morning—to hopefully get a nice view of the city, and walk a short distance from there to the Trevi fountain.

I got a couple of nice shots from the first level of the Monumento, but I knew it would be much better from the very top, which you had to pay €7 to ride the elevator to get to. I stood near the ticket counter for a solid minute and a half debating whether to pay, but ultimately figured I was there so I might as well.

That actually turned out to be the best €7 I spent on the entire trip. I’ve seen a lot of scenic views from high points in cities before, but almost nothing compares to this. The view from the Eifel Tower in Paris may be slightly more aesthetically pleasing due to the geometry of the surrounding streets, but the fact that you can see so many thousands of years of history in a single glance from this building in Rome probably pushes it over the top. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

View to the northeast.Straight north.    Pantheon.

Piazza Venezia. Note the Italian flag made of flowers.The Vatican to the northwest.

 OMG it's a bird! Get a picture! Forum ruins to the southeast.

So unbelievably awesome.

I had more Enigmal moments from the top of that building than at any other time, just over-awed by the very fact that I was in Rome after all this time spent longing to go there, and now I could see the entire city in all of its glory. I knew that I was in one of those moments that I would remember forever, seeing images that would flash before my eyes on my death-bed, and it gave me chills like you wouldn’t believe. I’m getting Enigmal now just remembering it, and I can’t believe it was only a few days ago. It already feels like another lifetime.

Every time I thought I might be done soaking up the scenery and deriving spiritual joy from it, I just couldn’t bring myself to go back down and I stayed longer and squeezed a bit more Enigmality out. The well never seemed to run dry. But eventually I did get on the elevator and get on with my day, blissfully unaware that the next few hours would constitute the lowlight of the trip.

When in Rome III – I’m Not Afraid of Americans

April 29th, 2011 No comments

April 24, 19:00 – April 25, 2:00

After standing on a nearby overlook for a few minutes to soak up the last bit of Enigmality I could squeeze from the ruins, I turned to walk back up the street I’d approached from, the Via Cavour, in search of a place to sit outside and eat my first genuine Italian food in Italy. As soon as I found one that looked decent and inexpensive enough I stopped and asked the waitress there if I could have a table for one outside. Of course I could.

I ordered a plain pizza, not wanting to taint my first sampling of genuine Italian pizza in Italy with any extra toppings. As I waited I busted out the Kindle my parents bought me for Christmas and read a little further in the book my friend Corey had recommended would be a good thing to read in Rome: Rubicon by Tom Holland which is indeed an excellent narrative history of the last years of the Roman republic and beyond perfect for the experience. Not to sound like a commercial or anything, but e-readers like the Kindle are the best thing since the invention of the I-pod for people who travel. You don’t have to lug around a giant book and can in fact lug around an entire library’s worth of books at the fraction of a weight of a single book. Whenever you’re at an airport, train-station, bus-stop or line for entry somewhere you can just bust it out and let the time fly by. [I expect my check from to arrive shortly.]

When my pizza came I was a bit disappointed by the look of it, but the taste of it disappointed me even more. It was just a typical mediocre European pizza—good but far from anywhere near what I was expecting from real Italians using real Italian ingredients. I resolved to try some pasta the next night and see if that was any better.

While I was finishing my dinner, another couple sat down a few tables down from me. It was in fact the same German couple from the S-Bahn that morning and the forum ruins a short while earlier. Say it with me: “Hwaatacoeeeenzidenze!” It was indeed such a ridiculous coeenzidenze that I couldn’t help but go up to them again as I was leaving and say, “Guten appétit”. When they saw it was me again they laughed strongly and we joked that we’d probably run into each other again later. But I’ll spare you the suspense and let you know right now that I didn’t actually see them again until the flight home. Still, the fact that these guys took just about the exact same route across Planet Earth as I had on the exact same day—from the same S-Bahn wagon to the same forum overlook to the same exact restaurant—I mean, seriously.

When I was finished with my pizza I realized how badly I wanted to top off the meal with a cigarette, but alas I’d decided to stop buying cigarettes of my own when I finished my last pack a week ago and go back to only smoking occasionally in social situations with others who would let me bum them. But I figured I really ought to buy a pack for the Rome trip, so I continued walking back in the direction of my hostel until I found a “Tabaccaio” shop and bought one. I decided not to buy a lighter, as I find it’s a good strategy when travelling never to bring a lighter because it forces you to approach other people you see smoking and ask them for a light—never a huge imposition. When they light up your smoke you can usually gauge whether you might be able to strike up a conversation as well. If they say nothing to you, which is usually the case, you just move on and no harm done.

After obtaining the cigarettes I walked across the street to a “Bar” which in Italy apparently just means a corner-shop that usually sells food and ice-cream and also happens to sell some beer as well. At this one you were able to sit outside, so I sat out there and smoked and watched the traffic roll by, just enjoying the evening atmosphere.

After that it was back to the hostel where I asked the owner if he could tell me where all the pubs were. He circled a big area on my map stretching from the Piazza Navona (which will take on some significance later so remember the name) across the Campo de Fiori (which will also have later significance) and all the way across the river to a part of town which will also become more significant later in the story.

View Larger Map

But none of those places mattered on the first night because I never actually made it there. The hostel owner told me which bus to take and after some difficulty figuring it out (for some reason you couldn’t pay the driver but had to buy a ticket before you boarded) I got on and let it take me down along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of the main strips of town with tons of places of interest all along it. Along the way I spotted a couple of Irish Pubs and I figured I’d just go to one of those tonight as Irish Pubs are always a great place to meet other travelers.

I entered “The Scholar’s Lounge” which I saw had an open barstool between two other guys, one there with his friend and the other alone. I ordered a beer and was horrified when the bartender told me it would be €7. Clearly I’d have to try and refrain from drinking as much in Rome as I do on a typical night out.

Picture from their website.

I sat in silence for awhile, trying to gauge my neighbors to tell how approachable they were. The two guys to the left of me seemed like typical Americans with not much of anything interesting to say, but the guy to my right was silent so I had no idea. The rest of the bar was filled with larger groups of people sitting at tables.

They were broadcasting a basketball game on one of the TV-screens which they must have been doing from a website because I doubt Italian TV broadcasts the NBA, and the Miami Heat were playing the Philadelphia 76ers. It was the fourth quarter and the 76ers had just taken the lead with an incredible 3-point shot. With only about 45-seconds to go, the guy on my left told his friend that Miami would definitely come back. I used that opportunity to say, “You think?” to him and he said “We’ve got LeBron.” I said, “I don’t know,” and he said, “I’ll bet you a drink that Miami scores again.” I considered it for a moment and decided very uncharacteristically of myself to take the risk.

So I was able to chat with him for a second and find out he was from Miami himself, but he’d been living in Rome for two years working for a company that he strangely didn’t seem to want to say anything about. We watched the rest of the game closely and I was pretty happy when the game ended without Miami scoring any more points. The dude—Steve—was true to his word and he did buy me a beer. So that’s one way to save money when out drinking.

Unfortunately Steve wasn’t all that conversational so we didn’t continue chatting much after that. I turned to the guy on my left and asked him where he was from. Apparently he was from Germany but also living there and he came to this bar often to watch sports and apparently never meet anyone. He was less conversational than Steve so that chat died an even quicker death.

When Steve went out for a smoke I asked him if I could join because I needed a lighter, and when we got out a Scottish guy named Liam joined us because he also needed a smoke. With some pressing, Liam was able to solicit from Steve that he worked for a British company that sells American financial products in Italy. No wonder he was so tight-lipped about it. He’s one of the guys that wreak havoc on the global economy. Suddenly I was a lot more satisfied about having won the bet with him, but a bit wary of where the money that had bought the beer I was drinking had come from.

Steve went back inside but I stayed and talked to Liam for a bit, who was much friendlier. He worked for Ryan Air as a steward—sorry, “flight attendant”—and he said while Ryan Air is “the worst company in the world” he loves his job. Having also worked a service job and hating it I couldn’t really understand it, but he said he loves being able to make people happy and make their flights a good experience. I thought about Chris—the guy I talked to the night in the airport terminal in London—who told me that almost all male flight attendants were gay, and I thought there was a good chance that Liam was gay until he suddenly stopped talking to me to go and aggressively hit on a girl who’d just sat down at a table outside.

I decided “eff this place” and I just went back inside to place my empty glass back on the bar and say “take care” to Steve. When I got back outside, Liam was too busy hitting on the girl for me to say goodbye so I just took off down the street until I came to the other Irish Pub called the Abbey Theater.

Another picture I failed to take.

I liked the atmosphere a lot better than the other place as soon as I got in, and I ordered a beer and walked around to an area where I heard two American couples, one at a table and one at a bar, discussing sports with each other. One of the couples was from Boston so they were excited about the Celtics game that was now being streamed, and the other couple was from San Diego—two cities I’ve been to but only briefly.

They sounded like typical Americans—the kind I normally wouldn’t approach—but true to my resolve I inserted myself into their conversation as soon as I found an opening. I stood there chatting with all four of them until the San Diego couple invited me to sit at their table with them. I spent a couple of hours there but only had two beers throughout because I was quite conscious of the price.

I was reminded of how easy it actually is to chat with other Americans. You don’t have to be conscious of the vocabulary or the expressions you use, and everyone understands all the political and pop-culture references you make. The conversation, unfortunately for me, was mostly about sports. I know a little bit about a lot of things, but sports is one of my weakest topics. Still, I know enough to have a few things to say every now and then. But there was also plenty of talk about travel, which is one of my strongest suits. Whenever I ask people where they’ve been they usually rattle off a list that contains at least two or three cities I’ve also been to, and I like hearing other people’s impressions of these places. But it was cool to have East Coasters and West Coasters there and to observe that in spite of the subtle differences in their respective demeanors, the culture is pretty much the same.

At some point a couple of other guys also joined us, a white guy who didn’t talk much and a black guy who was quite outgoing. All six of them were students but I don’t remember what any of them were studying except the black guy who wants to go into finance. I joked to him that when he crashes the global economy he should make sure he takes home a huge bonus for himself. Everyone got a huge laugh out of that including him.

They were all really nice people and I enjoyed hanging out with them, but once I finished my second beer it was almost 1:00 already and I figured it was a good time to head back to the hostel and go to sleep so I could get up relatively early the next day. Before I left I asked everyone for their names, explaining that I’m excellent at remembering them. I then asked for a picture of everyone, figuring readers of the blog might like to see them.

Oh say, you can see.From left to right, there’s Bronson and Kate from San Diego, Mark from Boston behind Kate, Javier and Silent Mike, and Mark’s girlfriend Sasha on the far right.

Javier offered to take a picture of me with them, which I figured was a good idea just to prove that I wasn’t making this up and I actually did successfully socialize with other people while I was in Rome.

Silent Mike is not amused.

So after having met more Americans than I have throughout my entire time living in Hannover, I began the journey back to the hostel. I thought about trying to figure out the night-bus situation but I quickly realized when I came to the Piazza Venezia that Rome at night was something to see as well. I jumped back into tourist-mode and snapped a few photos along the way.  Unfortunately only one of them came out well, but it’s a good one.

Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II

I got back to the hostel at 2:00 and the owner was still up. He must have heard the rickety elevator lifting me to the top because he came and opened the door for me as soon as I got out on that floor. I was very happy to have the room to myself, not as much from not having to be annoyed by other people but for not having to worry about me annoying others. I could turn on the lights and make as much noise as I wanted getting ready for bed. I even listened to a couple of songs on my I-pod before finally turning over and falling asleep, my soul in pretty damned good spirits after such a wildly successful first day of the trip.

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When in Rome II – Relics of the Empire and the Republic

April 28th, 2011 No comments

April 24, 14:00-19:00

I have to confess that I broke both my socialization resolves right off the bat when I stopped somewhere close to the hostel for a quick bite to eat—a delicious warm tomato and mozzarella Panini sandwich—and an American couple was sitting a few feet away from me. I just wanted to put something in my stomach and then get my ass to the Colosseum, and when I was finished I had no desire to strike up a chat. To be fair, I was now in a city I’ve always wanted to go to and I was anxious to get some items on my check-list checked off as soon as possible, especially because it was already approaching 3:00.

The hostel owner had provided me with a map—two maps, actually, but one was much more readable than the other—so I busted it out several times in an effort to navigate my way to the Colosseum, which as the symbol of Rome I knew would be the most appropriate way to begin. Every picture you see of Rome has the Colosseum on it, so while I was technically in Rome I wouldn’t really be able to feel that I was in Rome until I saw it with my own eyes. Imagine someone telling you they went to Rome but didn’t see the Colosseum. You’d laugh at them and say, “Well, then you weren’t really in Rome, were you?” At least I would.

View Larger Map

It was a downhill walk all the way from Termini station, and aside from an interesting-looking church there was nothing about the road leading there that looked especially different from any other European city. Although it was kind of cool that outside the church they had a screen constantly broadcasting clips of John Paul II, who is scheduled to be sainted on May 1st. I was anxious enough about the crowds because it was Easter, but I’ll bet it’s going to be even worse for the beatification. I hadn’t even known about the beatification, but it was impossible not to notice the posters everywhere and that screen outside the church around which at least a dozen people were sitting and watching. It was very strange to me that people would be such hardcore pope-fans that they’d sit outside and watch video-clips of him doing whatever it is popes do. Although I suppose it’s the Holiest waste of electricity there could possibly be (I would later discover that these video clips were running around the clock.)

Santa Maria Maggiore Hardcore pope fans!

After a relatively easy navigational effort I soon came to a little overpass where the Colosseum in all its glory came into view. I quickly busted out the camera and entered shameless-tourist mode. Just to give you an idea of the picture-taking situation, the camera I borrowed from Lena is one of those huge expensive ones that professional photographers use, so it was even more imposing than most tourists with their tiny digitals. I felt a little self-conscious at first, but I got over myself after realizing that half the people in this town were constantly snapping photos as well. I stopped a family there to ask them snap one of me in front of the Colosseum. I feel no need to have pictures of myself, but I knew my family and friends would appreciate it more if I didn’t just have lifeless pictures of buildings and artwork.

Proof I was there.   More convincing proof.

 What's with all the tourists?   These signs were everywhere.

I circled down to the street that leads up to the Colosseum, which was currently cleared of auto traffic and filled with people. As I approached I got another shot of me in front of it, and when I spotted some guys dressed up in gladiator uniforms I took a shot of them as well. When I walked by them they stopped me and offered to take some pictures of me with them with my camera. “Why not?” I figured. They took some pretty amusing pictures which I rather like, but when they handed the camera back they told me it was €10. That was ridiculous and I probably could have haggled them down a bit, but I figured it was my fault for not asking what they were charging ahead of time. I hate bargaining because I hate tension in general, so I just coughed up the dough and gave them a friendly goodbye. No use making a fuss about it.

Searching for victims. I am not Spartacus!

Thirteen!   Ouch.

Once I got near the entrance to the Colosseum I was approached by a woman who was selling tour tickets. Having just been scammed I was slightly wary of this offer, but it sounded legitimate enough: €22 for a guided tour of the Colosseum and afterwards for the Palatine hill next to it, and with the tour-group you could just go straight in and wouldn’t have to wait on line. I’m a big fan of guided tours—they tend to be leaps and bounds more interesting than audio-guides—so I took her up on the offer. Incidentally, she turned out to be German and I told her I lived there and we chatted for a bit, which helped to break the social-ice-barrier in my mind a little.

The tour-guide for the Colosseum was quite a treat. He was an Italian with an extremely thick accent that almost made me suspect he was actually faking it. The first thing he did was take us to one of the guys dressed up as gladiators and say a few things about their armor. One of the things he did throughout the tour was to remark on how some things we use today have their roots back in Roman times, the first being the shoulder pads of the gladiators. “You see it look just like NFL football—what a coincidence!” But you have to imagine it with an incredibly thick Italian accent so it sounded more like: “Hwaat-a-co-een-zidenze!”

He led our tour group inside—about forty people—and showed us the interior. He explained how the arch structure allows massive weight to be supported with relatively little material. “It just like bridge you drive on today—hwaatacoeenzidenze!” He also talked about how most films involving the Colosseum are terribly historically inaccurate, the film Gladiator in particular. “In that film they have person from one century talking to person from other century. It like if film is made where Barack Obama makes phone call to Abraham Lincoln. ‘Hey Abe, don’ go to theater tonight, you not gonna like it.’”

Of course amusement at our tour-guide wasn’t the only thing running through my mind. I was thoroughly appreciating the incredible awesomeness of the idea that I was in a building well over a thousand years old, a building where Roman Emperors, Senators, and plebeians alike all gathered for the most violent forms of entertainment imaginable. According to our guide, it’s estimated that over a million people were killed in this building throughout its history—more than enough blood spilled there to fill the entire structure if it were all poured in at once. And of course the idea that they also used to flood the place with water and conduct actual naval battles there was pretty awesome too. And I was standing there looking down at the actual place where it all happened, where millions upon millions of other eyes have looked stretching father back into history than most Americans can contemplate.

The view from inside. Mosaics are awesome. Anatomically correct horse's ass.    Heads of the dead (aka "Dead-heads")

Close-up of the "back-stage" area.  Our guide. Hwaatacoeenzedenze!

I wuz here. Best shot from inside.

I was getting that Engimal feeling rather frequently, “Enigmal” being a word I invented to describe that tingly feeling you get when you perceive yourself to be at a truly significant moment of your life because “tingly feeling” is an expression that doesn’t do justice to the mysterious phenomenon.

There were a bunch of people on the tour and I was tempted to make some off-hand comments to some of them but I didn’t. I did get a few random smiles from a girl which caught me off guard. She was a hippie-looking chick who appeared to be there all by herself. At one point she warned me that she heard flash-photography was really illegal in the part of the museum we were at. I wasn’t using the flash anyway (because I couldn’t figure out how it worked on the camera) but I thanked her, and that was the extent of our conversation during the tour although I resolved to approach her after.

But when the tour did end, on the second level inside the arena, she exited quickly and I wanted to walk around a bit and soak up the atmosphere a little more, snap a few more photographs, and I did just that. The Palatine Hill tour would be starting in twenty minutes anyway and with any luck she’d be on that one too.

It turns out that I did have some luck—I found her waiting on some stairs outside the Colosseum reading from a Paul Coelho book. I smiled when I saw that. If I had to guess which author out of every author a girl who looked like that would be reading, it would be Paul Coelho. That also sealed the deal in my head of approaching her, as it meant she must appreciate deep thought. “Hey,” I said but got no response. “Hey, Paul Coelho…” still nothing. Hmmm…maybe I’d made an error in judgment. But other people could see I was trying to get her attention and I’d look like a damn fool if I just gave up so I went and tapped her on the shoulder, something I do not like to do. Much to my relief she looked up from her book and gave me a warm hello, recognizing me from the tour.

So I struck up a chat with her and got to know her a little bit. Her name was Sarah, she was from the U.S. but I forget which state (either Vermont or New Hampshire), and she was currently spending several months wandering around Europe after a brief stint teaching drama in Romania. About as interesting a story as it gets. My story isn’t quite as interesting but being an English teacher living in Germany is at least more interesting than the typical “We’re just here for a few days on vacation” you hear from most people.  At least it’ll only get better as I get older—the more countries I live in, the more interesting I’ll be.

While we were chatting during our wait for the tour, I noticed a giant lighter in her bag and she said that it was a gift a guy gave her as a marriage proposal. She said that she’s been proposed to twenty-four times during her travels, which I found easy enough to believe. “I’ll do my best not to propose to you then,” I said. “I’ll try to restrain myself.” I was afraid that came out creepy but she chuckled.

The tour guide for the Palatine hill was different—a British guy named David who wasn’t quite as funny but still demonstrated his sense of humor by telling everyone that when we got to the top of the hill he was going to count to five and then everyone had to drop and do five push-ups. When he did, Sarah was the only person who actually did it.

She drifted away from me for the first half of the tour and I figured it was because I wasn’t interesting enough, but I did my best not to care. Luckily she wasn’t too attractive or the emotional distraction would have been too great, but then again if she was too attractive I probably wouldn’t have approached her in the first place :)

The map below is where the Palatine hill is in relation to the Colosseum. Click "Earth" to have a really weird virtual look-around of things many millennia old. Just be careful: don’t think too hard about the implications of what you’re seeing in terms of the broad long-term history of humanity or your head might start to explode.

View Larger Map

As for Sarah, it was pretty easy to put her out of my mind on the tour because this was the mother-effing Palatine effing hill in effing Rome—the very hill where Romulus founded the city of Rome after murdering his brother Remus, thus changing human history forever. Just imagine if things had gone the other way—the city would be called “Reme” instead…

It was also the hill where the Imperial Palace was built, of which plenty of sections were still standing. For some reason I found the section of floor still preserved to be the most awe-inspiring part. I mean—actual Emperors of Rome probably walked on that section of floor, and now I’ve walked on it too.

The Palatine was where all the well-to-do Romans lived, and from it you can see the Aventine where the plebeians dwelled. I would have liked to visit the Aventine because of its huge significance in the show Rome but there’s apparently nothing of interest there nowadays. But it was plenty cool to have a look at it. You could also see the spot where Emperor Augustus built his house, and from the opposite side you can look down on the Roman Forum, including the place where the Senate met which has been immortalized in countless films and shows including Rome.

Not mopped in ages. Incredible view of the forum.

Another incredible view. Site of the house of Augustus.

While standing on the overlook from which you could see the Forum ruins, two people came and stood right next to me who had not been on the tour but just happened to stroll right up at that exact time: none other than the Sara look-a-like and her boyfriend whom I’d noticed way way back in the ancient time known as that morning. Hwaatacoeenzidenze. I couldn’t help but turn to them and say, “Entschuldigung. Ich glaube wir haben die gleiche S-Bahn von Hannover heute morgen genommen.” (I think we took the same S-Bahn from Hannover this That's them! morning). They laughed in a very friendly way and we remarked about the odds and chatted for a moment about what we were doing in Rome and what our plans were. It turns out they were not only on the same flight there but they would be taking the same flight back on Wednesday. I was quite surprised at how good my German was—they didn’t even seem to realize I wasn’t German myself. Rather than go on and reveal myself, I gave them a friendly goodbye and told them I’d see them on Wednesday.

David was a good tour guide, and when the tour was over he gave a plug for his tour of the Vatican which would meet at 1:30 on Tuesday. I’d actually been planning to try the Vatican on Monday but David informed us it was closed. I took a flyer from him and figured I now had a solid plan for Tuesday afternoon.

During the second-half of the tour, Sarah came back up to me and said, “You totally abandoned me…” and I started to say, “You totally abandoned me…” but she quickly explained that she meant the push-ups. Right, because there’s nothing girls respect more than guys who will get on their hands and knees for them…I told her I couldn’t do the push-ups with my camera out and she joked that I’d probably been snapping pictures of her the whole time. I told her I took a video and it was going on YouTube as soon as I could find a computer, which made her laugh.

We continued to chat and I told her a bit about Japan, and a guy ahead of us overhead us and turned to me to say, “Nihon wa utsukushi desu,” and it would have been awesome if I could have replied but I just didn’t know what “utsukushi” meant. “Japan is…what?” He explained it meant “beautiful” so I was able to demonstrate my knowledge by asking him, “So could I go up to a lovely woman and say, ‘Anata wa utsukushi desu’ or is it more to describe places?” He explained it’s not really used for people and I shouldn’t go up and say things like that to women anyway. He said that when he was there he got egg on his face quite a few times for telling Japanese women things like “You have beautiful eyes” which I found both deliciously ironic (I’ll never forget getting egg on my face for telling a girl the same thing in German when I first got to Frankfurt) and rather disconcerting. I thought Japanese girls were supposed to love Western guys, but here’s my first solid piece of evidence to the contrary. At any rate, he told me I was going to love Japan and wished me a good afternoon. I kindly responded by wishing him well too.

After the tour when I was waiting for the Vatican tour flyer from David, Sarah told me she was going to go wander around and it was nice meeting me. Okay then. This girl was clearly a bit of a flake but I could hardly blame her for wanting to take in the scenery on her own. I understand that impulse all too well so I didn’t take it personally. But after doing a bit of wandering on my own I spotted her again on my way down to the forum.

So we joined up once again and toured the forum together, her company not detracting from my own appreciation of the amazingness of where I was. It was approaching 7:00 now and the sun was on its way down, giving the ruins an even more spectacular atmosphere that provoked the Engimal feeling on several occasions.

 You had to be there.

I told Sarah that I wanted to find and take a picture of the exact spot where Caesar was murdered, and she jabbed at me that, “Well, if that’s your thing, I won’t judge.” She was happy enough to look around for it with me, but unfortunately no spot was clearly marked as Caesar’s death place. I joked that if this was America, there’d not only be signs pointing to it everywhere but flashing lights at the spot along with a wax sculpture for people to take pictures of themselves stabbing Caesar. There would also have been a few more McDonaldses scattered throughout the ruins.

Maybe Caesar died here? Or maybe here?

We kept finding what looked like it could have been the spot and taking pictures, then finding spots that looked more likely to be the spot and taking pictures again until we finally found one that really seemed like it was definitely the place, and after taking a picture of it by itself I asked her if she wouldn’t mind “a picture of us together to commemorate my meeting of you” to which she happily agreed. So you can actually see her for yourself! Wow!

That's her (on the right) After that she tore herself away from me again, but I knew this was appropriate as I’m just as appreciative of the benefits of solo travel as she obviously is. The idea is to take in the experiences on your own with your own mind, untainted by the comments of others. Luckily my comments are typically all intelligent and witty so I knew she didn’t resent my presence any more than I resented hers. But if we were to agree to stick by each other for the rest of our time in Rome it would fundamentally alter the experience we were both attempting to have. So we bid each other adieu and she said, “Maybe serendipity will happen and we’ll meet again.”

As it turned out, serendipity didn’t happen, at least not again in Rome. But life is long and the world is small, so you never know.

When in Rome I – Crossing the Rubicon (at 13,000 meters)

April 28th, 2011 No comments

April 24, 7:00-14:00

I’m not exactly sure when my fascination with Roman history began, but I’m certain it was tied to my Christian up-bringing. Epic films I watched as a child such as King of Kings and The Robe were the first exposure I ever had to the Roman Empire, and as I grew and learned history in school, my fascination with Rome only increased even as my faith in Christianity faded. In addition to what I learned from public education, most of my perceptions of the Roman Empire come from other films such as Ben-Hur, Caligula, Spartacus, Cleopatra, and Gladiator. Certainly the HBO series Rome—one of the best things ever produced for television and my favorite out of all of them—solidified my interest in that time period once and for all. Rome was a city I’ve been longing to visit for most of my life, and now I can finally say I have.

I made this myself!

All roads may lead to Rome, but nowadays flying is much easier. I started from the town of Hannover, Germany where I live, and the time elapsed between leaving my flat and arriving in the city was just over five hours, an incredibly short time when you think about it.

One of the funniest ironies of the trip is that while Germany is usually considered extremely efficient and punctual in terms of its transportation system and Italy is seen as laid back and typically late, the only delays of the entire trip were on the S-Bahn to and back from the Hannover Airport. I had to pry myself out of bed to get to the train station on time, but then I had to wait an extra 20 minutes anyway. Luckily I gave myself plenty of time before takeoff.

I’m not the most observant person in the world so I don’t usually take special note of other people who share a train with me, but one of the girls who boarded the same S-Bahn, along with her boyfriend, looked astonishingly like a girl I knew in high school named Sara. She was the slightly-older sister of the infamous Aimee, to whom I also was attracted but in a far less intense way and I just considered her a friend. This Sara look-a-like was impossible not to notice, and I wondered if she and her boyfriend were also heading to the airport to catch the flight to Rome. It turned out they were because I saw them in the terminal after checking in, but I didn’t give it much thought at the time.

The flight took off and landed right on time, and I was happy to get a nice window seat from which I was treated to some spectacular views of the Swiss Alps as we passed over them. It had been a clear morning in Hannover but the cloud covering grew thicker as we approached Rome and I began to get a little nervous. The co-pilot announced that it was “a little cloudy, but still dry” in Rome so I wasn’t too worried, but the fact that the last seven days straight were perfectly clear and beautiful weather and it decided to cloud up just as my trip was starting was a minor annoyance. Like, seriously, Zeus? Or should I say Jupiter?

After landing I was a bit surprised that we didn’t have to go through passport control at all, so I guess that doesn’t have to be done for flights between EU countries anymore.

The airport, Fiumicino, is a significant distance from the heart of Rome itself but they have a train—the Leonardo Express—which runs non-stop from the airport to the central station in Rome—Termini. On the 25-minute ride there I took in the landscape and was relieved that while the sky wasn’t as blue as I would have liked the sun could still be easily perceived through the clouds enough so that it cast strong shadows.

The most annoying part of any travelling adventure is getting from the train station to the hostel, and although my hostel was literally just one block away from the station this was no exception. When I got out on the street I couldn’t find my direction. I had a print-out from Google Maps with me but there were no street signs in the vicinity and while some of the buildings had stone inscriptions of what street they were on, none of them seemed to be marked on my map. I could already tell that Rome was going to be particularly challenging to find my way around in.

You’ll notice I’ve figured out how to embed Google maps into these posts. Check out how close to the station my hostel was. Also feel free to poke around with the map and get a sense for where it was in terms of the larger city. If you click "more" and choose "zoom here" something particularly cool happens.

View Larger Map

But after about thirty minutes I finally found the place—an old building with a super-cool rickety old elevator in a wire-mesh shaft with wooden doors you had to open manually—and greeted the hostel owner who was friendly enough as he got me checked in. I’d lucked out in getting a single room that was about the same price as multiple-bed dormitories, as while I still had to share a bathroom I knew I could come in any time and not have to worry about waking anyone. Best of all I was guaranteed not to hear any snoring, which is an inevitability whenever sleeping in a multi-person hostel dorm (even if there’s just one other person.)

My luxurious room. The spactacular view from the window.

I was told before I went that I shouldn’t have got a single room because it defeated half the purpose of staying in a hostel which is meeting other people, but I promised myself I’d make up for that by being more outgoing than I normally am when I travel. I had two basic resolves regarding interaction with other people on this trip: 1- When you have a good opportunity to approach someone, take it. 2- Don’t avoid other Americans. I normally don’t like talking to other Americans when I travel because A) you can learn much more from foreigners than people of the same culture, and B) they often sound very obnoxious anyway. But I knew that Rome would be swarming with Americans and that most Italians don’t speak English, so if I wanted to socialize I’d have to keep my ears open for the English language and I couldn’t exclude anyone whose accent sounded too similar to my own. This resolve would prove to be crucial throughout the trip.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , , ,

When in Rome: Prefazione

April 28th, 2011 No comments

First picture I took of the Colosseum.

I began keeping a journal long before I ever expected to share it with anyone. My initial intention was only to help me clear up the thoughts and feelings floating chaotically around my head all the time, but as I grew older I found that going back and reading old journal entries allowed me to relive the experiences in a wonderfully intimate way. Because I wrote such detailed descriptions of not just things I did but the thoughts going through my mind at the time, reading old entries always transports me right back to those events in my life in a way that pictures never could.

As I continued writing, whenever I had a particularly significant experience—usually in the form of a travel adventure—I’d be sure to write a detailed account of what happened, purely for the sake of my future-self so he can re-live the experience. The more I went back to read old things I’ve written, the more I’d get to know what kinds of thoughts and experiences were worth documenting and what elements of my writing style made these entries most enjoyable for myself to re-read. It turned out that what was most enjoyable to myself was also enjoyable to others, and I began sharing my personal stories with others in the form of this blog.

For years only a few of my closest friends and some family members have been reading the journal—as well as some random people who just happen to stumble upon the blog and are kind enough to let me know they found it—but I never really went out and advertised the personal entries because 1) they’re often very intimate and I’m nervous about how others will perceive me, and 2) I think that most people would have no interest anyway. Because the main purpose of my writing is memory-preservation, these entries tend to get very long and extremely detailed, so I’m sure the vast majority of people in world wouldn’t have the patience for them. But apparently there is at least a small percentage of people who do enjoy reading this kind of thing, and I’m gratified to be able to share my writing with them even though I still do it primarily for myself.

Experiences are more meaningful when they’re shared with others because it influences them and they in turn influence others, spreading the lessons learned from those experiences throughout humanity’s collective consciousness. Living alone as I do, the vast majority of my experiences are quickly erased from the universe having never influenced another soul. Most people are able to share their experiences with one or several partners throughout their lives, but my lack of ability to forge a romantic relationship creates both the necessity and the opportunity for me to share my own experiences with the world at large. I’m lucky enough to live in the internet-age when I can indeed quite literally share my experiences with anyone in the entire world who might be interested.

I’ve now reached a point where significant life-experiences are twofold—documenting the events is just as important as actually living through them, and as such I get more detailed with each adventure I go on, knowing I’ll appreciate it later on and that others might appreciate it too.

The more significant I consider the event, the more in-depth I go into the description. Lately my travel stories have taken on the length of full novellas, and this one will be no exception.

Almost nobody will have the time or the patience to read this story all at once no matter how entertaining I try to make it, so I’m not only breaking it into parts as I usually do but will be posting only one section each day (with the exception of today) so the volume of pages isn’t so overwhelming. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so it’s appropriate that journal entries about visits to Rome aren’t read in one day either.

It was clear as I was living it that the story of my trip to Rome which ended yesterday ought to be documented thoroughly and shared with as many other people as might be interested. That particular city was #1 on my list of places-to-see-before-I-die, and the time I had there is well worth re-living again and again whenever I choose. I may have travelled there alone physically, but anyone who takes the time to read this will have joined me there in spirit after-the-fact.

The addition of pictures to this entry should make the reading of it more enjoyable for those who choose to do so [let your mouse pointer hover over each picture to read the captions].  I normally don’t take pictures—I’ll explain why within the narrative—but I wanted to do so on this trip as a kind of experiment, and I think the end result will be good. I’m still not sure the positive aspects of picture-taking outweigh the negative, but I won’t be able to decide for sure until I get some feedback.

If people respond positively to this, I’ll continue to document my travel experiences in this way with the intention of possibly reaching a wider audience and making “travel blogger” just as much a part of my identity as my actual job. If you know anyone you think might enjoy this kind of writing even if they don’t personally know the author, then by all means recommend it to them. The more people who share these experiences with me, the more meaningful they will be.

One final preliminary word—it’s best not to think of this as a story but rather a series of interrelated anecdotes strung together more-or-less chronologically, so some things which seem trivial at first will have significance later on. These will be buffered by bits of personal reflection and philosophical rumination, and as much humor as I can incorporate. I want to write something I know I will enjoy, so I hope the result will be something you enjoy as well.

“Mettiamoci al lavoro!” (Let’s get going!)

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,


April 23rd, 2011 No comments

The next blog entry I write will be an account of my journey to Rome, which I will take from tomorrow through Wednesday as part of my attempt to be able to say I was in all three WWII axis countries in the same year.

In all seriousness though, I’ve always wanted to go to Rome, I’ve always regretted not going during my exchange-student year in Frankfurt, and I knew if I left Europe again without getting there I’d be kicking myself for many years and possibly the rest of the my life. I’d considered going over the Easter holiday several months ago but decided against it, but on Monday when I realized that I’d have practically no lessons to teach for the entire weekend and all the way through to Wednesday, I figured a better opportunity would never present itself so I grabbed it. My flight leaves tomorrow, Easter Sunday, I’ve got a room at a hostel booked, and that’s about it. Everything else will pretty much be done by the seat-of-the-pants.

I wanted to write this blog post to announce that, as well as write a quick account of yesterday evening. Oliver invited me, Amanda, and Peggy to come to Celle and have a BBQ in his backyard. After the trip to the Hartz two weekends ago, I though it would be a long time before I’d get to spend time with Oliver, Lena, and Amanda all at the same time again, so this was a nice surprise.

The weather was as perfect as can be imagined, and we all had a wonderful time spending the afternoon sitting on a carpet we laid out in the yard, drinking beer after beer after beer, and chatting about nothing in particular. In the evening we grilled and ate together along with a couple of Oliver’s neighbors who spontaneously decided to join us, and at night we made a nice bonfire and sat around it. I’m going to miss nights like that.

When telling them about Rome, Lena said I should take lots of pictures and I reminded her that I don’t have a camera. It’s been my mind-set for years that I don’t need photos to document my life—I just write everything down. But I’ve recently begun to reconsider that resolve, especially because when I go to Japan I know lots of people are going to want to see pictures. Also from following Luke’s blog it’s clear how much pictures add to a written account of events.

Lena let me borrow her camera, so I’ll use the trip to Rome as a bit of a test-run to see if I can take some good pictures and include them in the blog post, so those who read this will have that to look forward to.

Six years ago, I went on my first solo travelling adventure in Europe when I spent two nights in Paris and two in London. Since then I’ve had quite a few other notable solo trips including two more to London, once to Frankfurt, and one time (sort of) to Berlin. Tomorrow will in all likelihood by my last solo travelling experience in Europe, and it couldn’t be more appropriate that it’s the last European city on my list of places I have to see before I die.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

Obama’s Re-Election Campaign Begins

April 18th, 2011 No comments

Snapshot 2011-03-05 04-32-47

Like most progressives, I liked what President Obama had to say in his budget speech last Wednesday. For the last two years I’ve been criticizing him for never standing up and making his case to the American people, so when he finally does that I have to give him some credit. He argued that the government does have a role to play in society, that we as Americans ought to not just look out for ourselves but our fellow citizens as well, and that dealing with our economic problems should require sacrifices from the wealthy and not just the middle class. He finally went after the Republicans for claiming that we can afford massive tax-cuts for the rich while simultaneously demanding drastic deficit reductions, and he pointed out that the rich are doing quite well these days and they ought to be expected to pay their fair share. He vowed not to extend the Bush tax-cuts again, and he said he would protect social safety nets like Medicare, which the Republicans are now planning to ‘reform’ (i.e. kill it in order to “save” it).

Unfortunately, while President Obama did make a lot of good points, he made them at 1 o’clock in the afternoon on a Wednesday, he didn’t make them very forcefully, and it seemed that nobody noticed except the usual TV pundits and bloggers whose job is to follow this stuff closely. They all agree that this was basically the first speech of Obama’s 2012 campaign, but it doesn’t seem like anyone heard it.

But it was a good speech and a good sign that the president isn’t going to drift as far to the political right as some of us have feared. If he remains president, we should be able to expect the expiration of the Bush tax-cuts, and we should be able to rest relatively safe knowing that programs like Social Security and Medicare will remain intact. Those reasons alone are good enough to vote for Obama over a Republican in 2012.

But I can’t help but seriously temper my optimism by looking at Obama’s campaigning/governing pattern so far and noticing the glaring differences between his rhetoric and his actions. If I ask myself, “Is this the kind of message I want from the president?” the answer is yes. But if I ask, “Does this represent a fundamental shift in the president’s governing strategy?” I’d have to say no. It was refreshing to hear him stand up and make some progressive arguments, but it’s not like he’s never made progressive arguments before—he did that all the way through the 2008 campaign, and back then he did it far more forcefully.

It was to be expected that once the re-election campaign kicked into gear, we’d start to see a little of the old Obama again. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, most Americans take the liberal/progressive position on virtually every political issue, so it’s politically smart to run a campaign as a progressive—as long as you can privately assure your Big Money donors that you’re not actually that progressive. Once you win the election and get into office, you’re free to move as far to the right as you like (and when your political opponents are as close to the fringe as the Republicans are, you can move very far to the right indeed).

I don’t need to make another laundry list of the things Obama promised he would do as a candidate and then backed down from as president. The only thing I need to mention is his promise to let the Bush tax-cuts expire. He tells us now that when the fight over those tax-cuts comes up again next year, this time he’ll refuse to cave in to the Republicans. Forgive me for quoting Bush, but “Fool me once, shame on…shame on…”

I’m not too excited about what I heard from Obama in his speech because it’s nothing new. I’ve always liked his speeches, I’ve always come away from them thinking that he’s on my side and he’s sincere in what he says. Then he goes and cuts back-room deals with Republicans and corporate power-players and I wonder what the hell happened to that guy who gave those awesome speeches.

The real litmus test for whether or not Obama is actually changing course in his approach to governing is coming soon, in the battle over raising the debt ceiling. Everyone who knows anything about economics says that for America to default on its debt would be a disaster of unprecedented proportions. The Republicans are getting ready to threaten to plunge the country (and the rest of the world with it) into another major economic crisis if the president doesn’t give them exactly what they want.

My guess is, the president won’t shift tactics at all. He’ll act like the Republicans are actually serious about doing it (when in reality they wouldn’t dare because their Wall Street masters wouldn’t let them) and cough up a bunch of spending cuts on programs for the poor and middle-class before finally reaching a deal at the eleventh hour.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and this time he’ll actually call the Republicans’ bluff and refuse to give up any more cuts that would hurt the middle-class. I certainly hope so, but I just don’t see that happening. His whole strategy is to appear as moderate and willing-to-compromise as possible, so he’ll compromise even when he doesn’t have to. He knows he can win re-election simply by telling progressives what they want to hear, and by moving just as far to the right of the center as he can in order to attract independents. He knows how far to the right the Tea Party has pushed the Republicans, and it’s his best electoral advantage. He might tell progressives nice things, but he doesn’t actually have to do anything for them because they’ll have no viable alternative.

Meanwhile, he still needs those Big Money campaign donations, so he’ll make sure to continue protecting the establishment and maintaining the broken system as is.

The only way for us to truly change things is by reforming the way campaigns are financed, but that’s only going to happen from a grassroots level, and unfortunately I don’t see such a movement really picking up steam before the next election.

No matter who wins in 2012, the American people will lose. The only decision we’ll have is over how painful that loss is going to be.

Sisyphus Weekend, Part 1

April 10th, 2011 No comments

I don’t think I’ve ever had such an experience that was both fun and enjoyable while simultaneously painfully difficult. I want to write about what happened for the sake of normal journal-documentation, but then I also need to do some serious venting which will have to be done in a separate, private entry.

On Friday afternoon I called Oliver to see if maybe I could come to Celle one night of the weekend, but he told me that he was going on a trip. He, Lena and his daughters were driving to a little village in the Harz mountains where they would be meeting Lena’s parents as well as Amanda and her girlfriend from Berlin, to see a show and have dinner before spending the night at a bed & breakfast. He said he would have invited me but his car was full, but his older daughter Ronja had been sick all week so if she wasn’t coming I was welcome to join them. I said I’d be glad to. Oliver, Lena, and Amanda are my three favorite people in Germany (not counting my family in Ichenheim) and it’s extremely rare that I get to hang out will all three of them. A short while after we hung up, Oliver sent me a text confirming that I could come.

The next day at around 2 p.m. I took the train to Celle where Oliver, Lena, the dog Buutsch, and Oliver’s younger daughter Nele were waiting in the car for me. We drove the one and a half hours to the Harz and found the bed & breakfast without any difficulty. Lena’s parents were already there and checked in, and a few minutes after we arrived Amanda and her girlfriend Peggy as well as Peggy’s neighbor Matza (I’m not sure how it’s spelled, but it definitely sounds just like the Jewish cracker) pulled up in their car. We all got checked in, had a beer out in the parking lot while we waited for everyone to get situated, then headed down the street in search of a beer garden to have another one before the show.

The village, called Rübeland, was extremely small and quaint but also quite beautiful. The Harz mountains themselves are actually not all that impressive—they’re essentially glorified hills—but compared to flat Hannover it was a really nice change of scenery. We walked about ten minutes down the road—the only road in the whole village—before coming to a nice restaurant where we could sit outside and have a beer.

I was attempting to practice my German as much as possible this weekend because aside from Amanda I was the only native-English speaker there, and Amanda speaks great German anyway. I did a pretty decent job while we were chatting, and after that second beer I was already feeling pretty nice.

Soon enough it was time to go to the show, “Nacht der Vampire”, which interestingly enough took place in a large cavern deep inside the mountains. The show began in the lobby, with the actors actually moving around through the crowd while they played out their scene. Of course it was all in German so I had a hard time understanding it and paying attention. I spent more time cracking jokes with Amanda than paying attention to the actors, but soon enough they all went through a door in the back leading into the caves and beckoned the audience to join them.

After a five-minute walk we were in a giant opening in the cavern with about ten rows of benches all facing the “stage” which was made up of various rock formations with different sets constructed in different areas. One was the inside of a mansion, another was a graveyard, and so on. The show itself was loosely based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula so I could pretty much tell what was going on, but with the German it was still hard to follow and throughout the whole second half I could hardly think of anything but how badly I needed to pee. After the show, the others confirmed that it was pretty mediocre, but the fact that it was inside a cave made it cool.

The sun was on its way down when we left the theater, and we all went back to the restaurant where we’d had the beer to sit down for dinner. The food was excellent, and the conversation was fun. Amanda’s really great to joke around with, and her girlfriend Peggy is quite nice as well. At this point I was wavering quite a bit in my resolve to stick with German because people kept speaking English to me, and eventually I was pretty much speaking only English.

There was a dessert menu on the table the whole time, and after we’d eaten a bunch of us were looking at it and really working up an appetite for some ice-cream, but the waitress told us the kitchen was closed so she couldn’t serve dessert. We spent the rest of the night bitching to ourselves about not getting ice-cream, wondering why it mattered that the kitchen was closed. How hard is it to open up some tubs of ice-cream and scoop some out? We asked the waitress if there was anywhere else we could go to get ice-cream but she said there wasn’t—it’s just a tiny village after all. Those of us who live in cities found it very strange to be in a situation where there was simply no way to get ice-cream—not so much as an ice-cream bar from a vending machine—without driving some distance.

When we left the restaurant we walked back to the bed & breakfast where Lena’s parents went to bed and the rest of us sat in the lounge downstairs continuing to drink and talk and occasionally go outside for a smoke. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about but it was a nice time. One by one the others went to bed until it was just me, Lena, and Oliver, and they were asking me about Japan. Lena said that if the school that hired me wants to put me anywhere near Fukushima I shouldn’t go, but I tried explaining to her without sounding too death-wishy that I didn’t care if I got cancer—Japan is my plan and I’m not going to let fear stop me from doing what’s been nearly a life-long dream for me.

Lena shared a room with Nele, and Oliver and I had a room to ourselves which is where the night ended for me. My favorite part of getting drunk is having mushy-emotional conversations with friends, and Oliver and I definitely had one as we stayed up and drank a little more before going to sleep. We were telling each other how much we valued each others’ friendship and that kind of thing, as well as getting somewhat deep and philosophical as we speculated about possibly having known each other in a past life. I was opening up rather substantially, but I still had to hold back with regards to certain things, things I also have to hold back from writing in a public blog entry.

We got up at 9:00 in the morning to go down and have breakfast, and we discussed what we wanted to do before heading back. Amanda and the two people she came with were going to a nearby Alpine slide, and at first we agreed to meet them there later once we’d all showered and got our things together, but that was not to happen because it was a 40-minute drive in the opposite direction of Hannover. Instead we—me, Oliver, Lena, Nele, and Lena’s parents—went for a little hike in the mountains which had plenty of really nice spots with great views that revealed just how small this village actually was. The weather was as perfect as you could imagine—not a cloud in the sky, not too cold, not too hot—and the only thing that could have made it better would have been leaves on the trees. It’s strange because the trees in Hannover are already blooming but apparently not yet in the Harz.

After the hike we went back to the same restaurant where the others had lunch but I wasn’t hungry, and as they all chatted in German my mind was elsewhere and I was sinking further and further into a deep state of depression that had hit me in the morning and progressed as the day went on. At about 2:00 we went back to our cars and parted ways with Lena’s parents, then took the hour-and-a-half journey back to Hannover because Nele had to take a train from there back to Emsland where she lives with her mother—Oliver’s ex-wife—and sister. There was some time to kill before she had to leave so we went outside the station where Nele and Lena got some ice-cream but I was still too depressed to eat. I was doing my best to hide my sadness by smiling and cracking jokes a bit, but somehow Lena was still able to pick up on it and she expressed concern, but I had no choice but to go on pretending that nothing was wrong.

We finally parted ways about a half-hour ago, then I came back to my flat, got everything unloaded, then laid down on my couch and curled up into a fetal position for a few moments before going about writing this down.

And now I have to write the rest of the story, which is faaaaaaaaar more interesting and meaningful than the bare-bones account I just gave, but because the world is a stupid place and certain thoughts and feelings that can’t be avoided can nevertheless be held against you, I must do that in a private entry. For anyone who cares—or if you just want to know what the Sisyphus reference in the title is about—I can give access to private entries to people I trust. Just register for the journal, then leave a comment or send me an e-mail and I’ll change your status so that you get full access.

Small-Government Progressivism

April 6th, 2011 No comments

Let me offer an idea. The next time you’re arguing with a conservative (if you never argue with conservatives, you should try it sometime) call yourself a “small-government progressive” or “small-government liberal” and see how they react.

If you call yourself a liberal or progressive, they’ll just dismiss you and everything you have to say immediately. You’ve labeled yourself as their Political Enemy, and in their mind you couldn’t possibly have any worthwhile insight to offer. When you speak they won’t be carefully considering your arguments—they’ll just be fishing through their memories of recent Fox News segments in search of an applicable talking point to counter with.

Of course there are plenty of rational conservatives who are fully capable of independent thought—I’m referring now only to a certain type of right-wing ideologue who rely on the Rush Limbaughs, Bill O’Reillys, and Glenn Becks of the world to do their thinking for them. If you call yourself a “progressive” they’ll dismiss you, but if you attach the “small-government” caveat, it’ll make them blink. They may be conditioned to hate the word “progressive” but they’re also conditioned to feel warm and fuzzy whenever the word “small” is placed in front of the word “government”.

Suddenly they’re slightly more receptive. “Small-government progressive?” they’ll ask, their curiosity aroused. Now you’ll have a fair chance to explain your positions, as now their minds will be prepared to agree with at least some of what you have to say.

Start with something that you probably already agree on: bank bailouts. You may be a progressive but you don’t think the government should just hand over hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to Wall Street banks that crashed the economy with no strings attached. That’s about as bad as Big Government gets, and you’re just as outraged as the conservatives are. (For those of you who’ve been told by the media that most of this money has been repaid, I’d urge you to take a closer look and read about how these banks have managed to “pay us back” with our own money and still deprive us of $165 billion in interest). If you’re feeling confident, you may even want to drop a subtle reminder that the bailout happened under the Bush administration.

Next you can explain that you don’t think the government needs to spend nearly $700 billion a year on defense, about seven times as much as the country with the next highest military budget, China. About 36% of all our tax money goes to the military (more if you count veteran’s benefits, but we like those), which it uses to fight unnecessary wars or maintain unnecessary military bases all around the world. As small-government progressives, we don’t think we need an Empire. The military should only be used for genuine peace-keeping and humanitarian missions (done with international support and cooperation) and for defending the homeland from actual threats—like if England ever decides it wants its colonies back.

You might even get some agreement there, but now it’s time to start making your conservative friend’s head spin. When you say you want small-government, it means you also want the government out of people’s private lives. That means you oppose South Dakota’s new law forcing women to wait 72 hours for an abortion, Oklahoma’s law forcing women seeking an abortion to listen to a detailed description of the fetus before undergoing the procedure, Arizona’s law paving the way to imprison abortion providers, and all of these draconian measures implemented by Republicans to place the government squarely between women and their doctors—essentially giving the government dominion over women’s own bodies. Ask them how they can call themselves “small-government” conservatives and still support laws like this.

Also ask how they can claim to be in favor of “small government” and support anti gay-rights measures taken by Republicans like Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia who rescinded the right of state workers to be protected from discrimination based on sexual preference. Suddenly what you do in the privacy of your own bedroom is not only the governnment’s business, but they can actually fire you for it. Is that “small government”? How about the countless bills banning gay marriage? Can your conservative friend really call himself a fan of “small government” if he wants the government to tell people who they can and can’t marry?

Or how about marijuana prohibition—laws that tell us what substances we can or can’t put in our own bodies? You might be able to defend these laws on public safety grounds if there weren’t so much evidence that marijuana is safer than alcohol, which remains perfectly legal. In any case, should a “small-government” conservative support measures like that taken by Rick Scott in Florida to force all state employees to undergo frequent drug tests (which I’m sure has nothing to do with his personal financial stake in a drug-testing company)? Apparently the government should be so big that it routinely examines the chemical composition of your own urine.

Perhaps your conservative friend is beginning to realize that he’s not such an advocate for small government after all. To really put him to the test, ask him if he supports the “financial martial law” legislation in Michigan that allows the governor to declare a state of “fiscal emergency” in a town and appoint an unelected manager with the power to break union contracts, dissolve entire municipalities, and nullify boards and councils of elected officials. Had this been proposed by a Democratic governor, wouldn’t he have been up in arms about it? But because it’s a Republican and because it’s being done in the name of “fiscal responsibility” he’s perfectly willing to let Big Government become so big that it can literally override the will of the voting public.

If you’re still having a conversation at this point, there may actually be some room for common ground. Maybe he’s more consistent in his belief in small government than many so-called conservatives today. Can’t you both agree that what’s important is not so much the size of government but its effectiveness? You may call yourself a progressive and he may call himself a conservative, but you can both be in favor of smaller, smarter government.

We progressives don’t want the government to control every aspect of people’s lives—we just want it to exert more control over those aspects of life where some degree of government involvement is essential. Let’s make sure our drinking water is safe, our food isn’t poisoned, our air is clean, our drugs are well-tested, and so on. Let’s make sure there are enough rules and regulations to prevent Wall Street from crashing the economy again. Let’s not hand over $56 billion of taxpayer money in the form of subsidies to oil companies that are already enormously profitable (how is that not Big Government?), but let’s make sure that if we let those companies drill for oil off our shores, they actually have an adequate plan to contain a spill if it occurs.

Progressives don’t want Big Government. We just want a government that does what it’s supposed to do, and if we can resist falling into the black-and-white narrative of Big-Government Liberal vs. Small-Government Conservative that the media traps us in, we might find that we have more in common with our Fox-viewing friends than either we or they would expect.

All you have to do is challenge the framing a little bit to get them to open their minds to a healthy dose of nuance. Progressives aren’t who they think we are, and many of them are not as closed-minded as we might think they are. In any case, middle-class conservatives and middle-class progressives definitely share far more economic interests with one another than we do with the giant corporations and billionaires who own the media and both political parties.

They’ve taken over our government, shrinking it only in the areas that present obstacles to them while expanding it to absurd proportions in all of the areas that benefit them. Conservatives may think they have a monopoly on the concept of “small government”, but my hope is that we start forcing them to think about what they mean by that. Perhaps some of them will realize that when it comes to certain core issues about the role of government, both conservatives and progressives can be on the same side.

The Last Season Change

April 3rd, 2011 No comments

No major events have happened recently, but I think it might be a good time to just write a quick overview of where everything in my life stands at the moment.

I’ve now spent three winters in Hannover, and with the first day of temperatures higher than 20°C yesterday it seems that my last one is officially over. A cold I got last weekend gave way to hay-fever yesterday, and now I’ve got a few weeks or months of itchy eyes and runny noses to look forward to. I love the spring, but it doesn’t come without a price.

Because yesterday was the last completely nice and sunny day they’ve forecasted for awhile, I knew I had to take advantage but I also knew that every single person in the city would have the same idea. I went cycling like usual, but I made sure to get out as early in the day as possible to beat the afternoon crowds. For the first time since the Fall I did a complete cycle-tour of Hannover’s nicest areas, a two-and-a-half hour giant closed loop that takes me up the river, through the park, through the forest, and back around to the area around the Maschsee before heading up the river again. It was fantastic, and for the first time this year I noticed the trees beginning to sprout new leaves. In a couple of weeks all signs of winter will be gone, and if all goes according to plan I won’t see those trees in their leafless state again.

Unfortunately, the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in Japan has cast a shadow of doubt over the whole plan to go there this summer, but right now I’m operating under the assumption that it’s still going to happen. I wrote to Interac, the company that hired me, the week the disaster occurred and they told me that nothing has changed with regard to my situation, but of course you never know. Every time I watch the news I hear some new horror story about radiation and potential nuclear catastrophe, and it’s a constant source of uncertainty.

Many people think I’m crazy to still want to go there given the situation, but I just hope those people’s perceptions are as warped by the media as mine. Interac told me that less than 10% of their business was affected by the tsunami, that Japan is a big country. They probably won’t place me near the disaster area, but I don’t even care if where I go was affected. I just want to be there instead of looking at things from afar and wondering if it will affect me. I even feel bad that with all the devastation there and with all those poor people who’ve lost everything, I’m more worried about my own situation. Had I been there when it happened, there might have been something I could do in the aftermath to help. But from here all I can do is wait and hope they get the situation under control. I’ve also got to face the fact that the Japan I’d been trying to go to has now been altered, and that now the only Japan I’ll ever know is post-tsunami Japan.

But I try not to think too much about that as I continue to get ready. I won’t have to do anything until next month when they will presumably finally tell me where I’m going, but in the mean-time I make time to study Japanese every day, which I still can’t believe how much I’m enjoying. I’ve also learned Spanish and German, but for some reason Japanese is by far the most fun language I’ve ever studied. The writing is one reason—who doesn’t love ひらがな and カタカナ?—but the words themselves are just so fun to say: “I’m typing this on my konpyuutaa which sits on my teeburu.” Even if I don’t wind up getting to live in Japan, I think I’ll go on learning the language.

As for Germany, I’ve only got three and a half months left, and not much to do in that time. I’ll be going to Ichenheim one last time for Rheinfest, and there are two Roger Waters concerts to go to but those are the only definite plans. I’d thought I would try and make it to Rome once before I leave Europe, but I’ve decided for a number of reasons it would be wise to forego that trip and save my money for other things.

My friend Luke from college is currently travelling around the world (he’s keeping a pretty good blog-record of it, which you can check out here) and if all goes according to plan he should come out and visit me this summer before I head back to the states. I finish teaching in June and I’ll have the first two weeks of July free to travel around and basically give one last goodbye to Germany before I embark on the next chapter of my life.

Assuming nothing goes wrong and it really happens, it’s going to be the most unique chapter of my life so far, and potentially the most interesting. It’s also going to be a lot more difficult than the one I’m in now—I’ll have to work longer and harder than I have to under my current job-situation—but I have a feeling the work is going to be more rewarding, as I’ll be teaching actual schoolchildren instead of business people who are either too old to learn well or already speak perfect English and just want to practice. Instead of a few lessons a day and then a bunch of free time, I’ll be occupied nearly all day every day except weekends and holidays, like being back in school myself. But that should be very interesting—I always anticipated being a public schoolteacher at some point in my life, but I never guessed that it would first be in Japan.

Until then I’ve just got to try and not let this time fly by as quickly as it has already this year, and make sure to appreciate what I have while I still have it. I can’t say these past three years have been my proudest—I would have liked to have become more social, met more people, improved my German more, etc.—but I’ve certainly enjoyed them. It’s almost felt like a three-year-long vacation.

But all vacations must come to an end, and if I had to spend another year here I’d probably go insane. I wasn’t built to spend so much time in one place—there’s a wind in my soul that makes me want to keep moving and keep accumulating new experiences. The fact that I have such a hard time connecting with other people and that it’s impossible for me to get a girlfriend are both advantages in terms of being able to live this kind of life, so I’d better take advantage. I hope I make more friends in Japan than I did in Germany, though the friendships I have forged here with Oliver and Lena are invaluable and will probably last a lifetime. As for women—I stand ready to be the only Westerner to live for years in Japan without ever getting a Japanese girlfriend. It’s not that I’m going to try and avoid that—I haven’t deliberately avoided it here either—but life just has a way of preventing that from happening for me. But like I said, I can make that work to my advantage.

And those are all the random life-situation-related thoughts that are floating around my mind at this point in time. This is where things stood at the beginning of Spring 2011, as I round the final stretch of my time in Germany.